Saturday, 19 November 2011

Northern Ireland 3-1 Norway (Women's Euro 2013 Group Three Qualifier)

By Gerry Walton

Northern Ireland women pulled off a massive upset, beating Norway 3-1 in a hard-fought Group Three encounter at Mourneview Park, Lurgan.

The hosts were outplayed from the start by their Norwegian opponents, but went in at the break 2-0 up, with Kirsty McGuiness scoring after 17 minutes, and Ashley Hutton doubling the lead after 44 minutes.

Norway got back into the game with a 60th minute goal by Isabell Herlovsen, before Northern Ireland wrapped up the three points in the 74th minute through Rachel Furness.

Catherine O’Hagan was sent off late on for Northern Ireland after a high challenge, but they held out for a valuable three points in their quest for Euro 2013 qualification.

Around 300 fans were in attendance to see the Northern Irish, ranked 64th in the world, take on the former European champions, who are ranked 12th, and the side were fired up from the start with some fiery challenges.

Norway were dominant in possession, but not creating much, when Northern Ireland took the lead on the counter attack in the 17th minute.

Left-winger Kirsty McGuiness struck a heavily-deflected left foot shot which wrong-footed Ingrid Hjelmseth in the Norwegian goal.

In response, Norway upped the tempo and intensity, forcing several corners and one fantastic point-blank save from goalkeeper Emma Higgins after an Ingvild Isaksen shot.

Despite this, Northern Ireland made it 2-0 a minute before the break with their only attack since the first goal.

Centre-back Ashley Hutton headed in at the back post from a Kirsty McGuiness corner, leaving Northern Ireland manager Alfie Wylie with an undoubtedly easy team talk.

In the second half, Norway resumed their assault on the Northern Irish goal, with some good passing and movement.

However, Norway lacked a cutting edge, with some wayward finishing on show. Marita Lund shot wide from close range.

The corners began to mount up for Norway, with Northern Ireland happy to sit back.

On the hour mark, Norway halved the deficit, with Isabell Herlovsen finishing low into the right-hand corner.

Norway’s passing got increasingly more loose as they tried to chase the game, with keeper Hjelmseth’s clearances giving Northern Ireland an occasional platform to attack.

Despite Norway’s attempts to level the scores, forward Rachel Furness made the game safe for Northern Ireland in the 74th minute with a close-range effort after her first shot was blocked.

In the 88th minute, Catherine O’Hagan was sent off for a second bookable offence after a high challenge, leaving Northern Ireland down to 10 men.

However, it was too late for Norway to take advantage, as Northern Ireland leapfrogged them into third place, ahead of their trip to Hungary on Wednesday.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Ashley's Last Chance Blown

Somewhere a rather overweight man is rubbing his hands in delight at the international break. Not only will Mike Ashley be ardently cheering on his beloved England tonight as they take on Spain, but watching his controversial Newcastle stadium name-changing scheme slowly slip from the headlines.

He is a very smart man. Newcastle do not play again at the so-called ‘Sports Direct Arena’ until December against Chelsea. He is banking on the fact that any anger will have long burnt out by then. I for one am not so sure this will happen.

There is every chance that the unbridled optimism of Newcastle’s start to the season will be snuffed out by a couple of sound beatings at the hands of the two Manchester clubs. This would lead to a touch of negativity returning, and what better excuse to protest at Mike Ashley than this latest fiasco.

His henchman, Derek Llambias, claims that the Magpies stand to earn up to £10m a year through selling their stadium naming rights. He claims that because the fans wanted a new striker the club are forced into this situation of a stadium name change.

This would fly in the face of the recent financial figures. The club announced a £4.7m loss for the 2010-11 season, with a profit expected for the current year. This is better than many clubs, yet why do Newcastle, operating in a one-club city, with 52 thousand seats in their stadium, need to resort to changing this stadium’s name for the relatively meagre sum of £10m?

Or could it perhaps be possible that Mike Ashley has no intention of actually selling the naming rights to St James’ Park, and that we will see the Sports Direct name become a more permanent fixture. After all, his chain of sports shops are now benefiting from some free advertising. He has already demonstrated his lack of understanding of the rich heritage and local feeling that the club represents, so could he just be taking the loyal support for a ride?

Don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with the club’s performance on the pitch. I am actually in favour of his current transfer policy, as Alan Pardew seems to be able to work wonders on such a tight budget, and as long as Graham Carr remains chief scout, there is absolutely nothing to worry about on the playing side.

I only regret the fact that Mike Ashley seems to have an unrivalled ability to shoot down any budding optimism in the region. He did it with Keegan, turning what could have been a glorious second coming into the damp squib of reality. He did it with Shearer, totally ignoring the club legend who wished to rescue Newcastle from Championship oblivion. He did it probably most inexplicably with Hughton, who was stabilising the club in its first year back in the big time.

Through sheer luck more than anything else, Ashley has landed on his feet with Pardew, yet by plastering his own brand over the St James’ name, he risks losing the 12th man that has carried Newcastle over the line on so many occasions already this season. The Toon Army will always sing for the team. They are even beginning to sing for Pardew. But this latest stunt has ensured that Mike Ashley will never ever hear his own name sung in the Gallowgate. At least, not in the way he would prefer.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Why Hearts Owner Romanov Has No Right To Complain

Vladimir Romanov caused quite a stir this week, when he slammed the Scottish Premier League’s lack of competition and investment in its growth.

The much-maligned Lithuanian owner of Hearts said,

"That sort of outrage from the media, federation and tax authorities kills everyone who is trying to change this situation, including ourselves, who are ready to invest in Scotland once again with stadium plans. And no-one is interested in what's going on.

"This is why I think there is no point in spending millions to watch someone else's show."

This is a fact that cannot be denied, but in the current economic climate, can you blame big businesses and oil magnets for not wanting to risk their hard-earned wealth on Scottish football?

Even Premier League owners have slammed on the investment breaks – most famously Mike Ashley at Newcastle. So why would any Scottish club outside the Old Firm want to throw money at a futile cause?

Even the Old Firm themselves don’t really need to spend that much money, not that they have it to begin with. Unless they have grand European ambitions, it does not take much to fend off one serious rival each year. In fact, Rangers were in such dire financial straits that they could barely sign a player over the past two or three years.

It might seem like I’m wandering off the point here, and that I am defending Romanov. Well what he says is true, but the real reason why Hearts are not mixing it with the Old Firm and are instead down in fifth is not to do with money, but Romanov himself.

Let us cast our minds back to the summer of 2005, when Romanov bought Chris Robinson’s shares and took a majority ownership of the club. His first managerial move was to appoint George Burley – which was a masterstroke (although this was actually instigated by chairman Phil Anderton).

To start the 2005-06 season, Burley’s side won eight league matches in a row, equalling a club record set in 1914. This was the greatest chance of a non-Old Firm title winner in years.

How does Romanov handle this situation? Not through encouragement of his manager, and backing in the transfer market. Burley was sacked the day after Romanov increased his stake in the club to 82%.

And so it began. To compound the misery for many Hearts fans, Graham Rix, a convicted sex offender, was Burley’s replacement. He was appointed in November 2005.

In February 2006 rumours began to surface that Romanov was interfering in team selection. By the end of March, Rix was out on his ear, to be replaced by Valdas Ivanauskas.

Somehow, Hearts managed to limp towards the end of the season, and a second place finish, seventeen points behind Celtic. But the damage was done. A potential title challenge at fallen by the wayside, and Hearts were fortunate to be faced with a poor Rangers side as competition.

That was to be Hearts’ highest League position to date under Romanov. Since then, the club has had five different managers. The club has muddled around in mid-table for most of this time, and occasionally flirted with relegation.

If Vladimir Romanov wants to blame anyone for the lack of competitive edge in Scottish football, then he only has himself to look at.

He had the best chance of anyone, and he blew it through his own bad judgement. No wonder he seems to be considering his Hearts future. I doubt many would be sad to see him go.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Is English Football More Focused On Entertainment Than Ever Before?

This season has seen an unprecedented level of high-scoring ‘big’ matches in such a short space of time. This borne out by the fact that the average amount of goals per game is 2.97, compared to 2.59 this time last year.

We have witnessed Man United’s 8-2 humiliation of Arsenal at Old Trafford, and then the Red Devils got a taste of their own medicine as the ‘noisy neighbours’ of Man City thumped them 6-1.

Already we had probably experienced more excitement for one season than is medically advisable. Chelsea and Arsenal then took it upon themselves to set the football pulse racing even higher.

A 5-3 victory for Arsenal at Stamford Bridge is probably not what most blood-thirsty pundits were hoping for. This was supposed to be the season Arsenal were imploding beyond control – when Wenger’s faith in youth, or perhaps more importantly entertainment, finally came apart at the seams.

Instead, Chelsea, so long robbed of their creative freedom by Mourinho (although who are we to argue with his record), were now giving as good as they got in terms of passing, movement, and shots on target. They got egg on their face, but Andre Villas-Boas has the right idea. He must know that his side will become more fluid, and more able to carry out his orders in time. Let’s hope he gets that time.

This season is perhaps one where the “playing not to lose” mentality has gone out the window. Unless you are Alex McLeish or Tony Pulis.

Three Premier League clubs once managed by Sam Allardyce are now playing football that is rather more pleasing on the eyes. Newcastle are doing it with great success; Bolton and Blackburn less so. Even their current relegation neighbours Wigan are playing attractive, but not effective football.

Even another glance towards the top sides shows us that they strive to win with flair. Barcelona’s much-applauded philosophy probably finally hit home with their 3-1 demolition of Man United in the Champions League final.

Admittedly, Sir Alex’s boys probably took it too far, and quite naively too against a savvy Manchester City side. They reverted to type with a ground out 1-0 win at Everton, but I have a feeling Fergie will not be dissuaded from creating another young and pacy title-winning side.

Even the promoted sides have hit the ground running through a commitment to fan-pleasing tactics. Swansea and Norwich in particular have both impressed me greatly – the Canaries very unlucky not to beat Liverpool at Anfield last month.

I can only hope that chairmen don’t get nervous after an eight-game winless run and sack the men that helped put a big smile on my face. Would they really rather the likes of Gary Megson?